When Henry Hirschmann was growing up in Grosse-Auheim, Germany, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, he was known for his prowess at running and swimming.
One day in 1935, when Henry was 15, he finished his homework and headed for the local swim club. He got the shock of his life: A sign on the fence read: No Jews or Dogs Allowed. That was only the beginning. Unspeakable horrors awaited the Jews under Adolf Hitler’s rule.
Henry Hirschmann, who spent decades in Charlotte talking to school children about what happened under Hitler, died in his sleep at his Charlotte home on Oct. 17. He was 99.
Born August 5, 1920, Henry, along with his parents and two younger brothers, survived the events of Nov. 9, 1938, known as the Kristallnacht or “The Night of the Broken Glass,” for the shattering of Jewish store windows by the SS police force. Henry also survived six months at the concentration camp Buchenwald before a visa allowed him to sail for freedom to the U.S.
In New York, Henry moved in with his aunt and uncle in the Bronx. He worked menial jobs while learning English. Meanwhile, his parents and brothers were writing from Germany: Please get us out of here!
By then, no matter how Henry schemed, there was no way out for them.
In hopes of finding family members in Europe, Henry signed on with the U.S. Army during World War II. At last, in Frankfurt, at the Jewish Community Center, he leafed through the “Black Book,” which listed the dead. There he saw the names of his parents and his brothers and discovered they had been transported to the “killing camps” in Minsk, Russia.
Back home in New York, Henry met Blanche Weinstein at a gathering of the Hiker’s Club on Staten Island. They were married a few months later – April 28, 1951 – in a temple on West 181st St.
In 1968, the Hirschmanns — with daughter Adina and son Paul — moved to Charlotte, where Henry sold gift items to department stores. They joined Temple Israel, kept a kosher house and quickly made friends.
Gene Kavadlo, a retired clarinetist with the Charlotte Symphony, remembers the day, more than three decades ago, that he and his wife Ali gave a musical program at the (old) Temple Israel in Dilworth. Afterward, Henry introduced himself and invited them to go out for dessert.
“We went to the (old) Shoney’s on Morehead and had a lovely dessert, and we’ve been close ever since,” he said in 2013.
After Blanche died in 2008, Henry began to travel, especially to Germany.
Each time, he’d ask Germans how they had dared to tolerate the horrific persecution of the Jews right under their noses.
According to Henry: “They would throw up their hands and say, ‘But we knew nothing about it!’ ”
“Outright lies!” Henry always said later.
Each fall, Henry dreaded the approach of the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
No wonder. He never forgot the details of that day and night.
How his mother called him early on Nov. 9, 1938, and begged him to escape to Holland, where she thought he might be safe. He had no money for a train, so he went straight home to Grosse-Auheim.
How about nightfall, the family heard a deafening shattering of glass all along the street as the SS officers hurled bricks through the windows of the Jewish-owned stores, including Henry’s father’s hardware and home goods store below the family’s apartment.
How a sudden silence fell, followed by heavy boots pounding up the stairs.
How the dishes and glassware crashed to the floor.
How the officers handcuffed him and hauled him to jail.
How he found himself on a train to Buchenwald.
How throughout Nazi Germany during the nights of Nov. 9-10, Hitler’s troops ransacked 1,668 synagogues, shattered the windows of 7,500 Jewish-owned shops and killed 91 people.
For years afterward, Henry had a mission: To visit area schools to talk about the Holocaust, reminding students that what happened during Kristallnacht could happen again.
“All you need is a powerful propaganda to convince people of what ought to be,” he would say.
Again and again, Henry Hirschmann said, “As long as I breathe, I am free to keep the stories alive so that no one will forget the horrible things that human beings can do to their fellow human beings.”